Teaching genocide in Armenia

For decades, Armenian students were taught to have nothing whatsoever to do with Turks – no Turkish television, discussions, etc. Now people can talk about the issue, do business with Turkey, and invite delegations of Turkish young people to take part in the Meds Yeghern memorial.

That doesn’t mean public opinion has improved very much. My students were disgusted that Turks were here. It was inconceivable to some students that Turks disagreed with their own government.

Though the US position is officially neutral (so even my US students couldn’t take sides, or do projects that were supportive of the Armenian position), it is impossible not to feel emotion and form an opinion. Even I was enraged to hear about the Muslim groups in the US that supported Turkey. How can some people choose to equate the killing of innocent civilians with military casualties? It is impossible not to loose your balance.

After a week of watching documentaries, reading primary sources, and hearing eye witness accounts, the emotional toll kept some students closely huddled around their initial prejudices. Teaching about genocide involves so many cognitive traps that confirm Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman’s research in cognitive psychology –  political positions might have more to do with individual brain chemistry, and the tyranny of empathy can only be quelled by long hard doses of intellect.

Yet I remain dedicated to the idea that my autonomy depends on reason guiding emotion. Teaching about genocide is one of the most complex tasks a teacher can have – you need empathy, intellect, a spiritual sense, historical understanding, and the willingness to acknowledge ignorance.

Mix that challenge with teaching in a place that is cynical about freedom of speech, political change, and harbors deep hatred – giving counterexamples can seem insulting, to say the least.

“What were some of the responses to your questions downtown Yerevan?”

“The only good Turk is a dead Turk.”

“Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course they need to be re-payed for what they have done to us.”

(Talk about a teachable moment, where failure to communicate means perpetuating a cycle of hatred and ignorance.)

“Are you telling me that everyone in Turkey is to blame for the genocide?”

(Armenian student): “Mr. Siebert, you can’t tell me that those people who stabbed pregnant women are innocent.”

“I don’t think I’m saying that. Take this scenario – there is a small town of 50 people. 40 of them are evil and have done horrific things, and 10 of them are good. You have a drone with missiles and can wipe the town out. Would you do it?

“No.”

“Ok, what about if there were only 5 people in the town that were good, but 45 continued to murder and destroy. Would you do it now?”

“Umm… yeah, sure.”

“So 5 out of 50 people you would be willing to kill – that’s 10 per cent ratio. OK, so how many people are there in Turkey?”

“I don’t know, 70 million.”

“And what’s 10 per cent of 70 million? 7 million? You would be willing to kill 7 million innocent men, women, and children. I don’t know if I would ever do that.”

“Well, no I wouldn’t kill the innocent ones, only the ones that had a part in the genocide.”

“But those Turks are all pretty much dead. Besides, how would you be able to tell who supports genocide and doesn’t.?

“Wait Mr. Siebert, are you saying that the Turks should have no consequences for what they did to us?”

“No. But I want you to think about your desire to kill Turks, and your idea that all Turks are evil.”

(Expat German student): “Not all people in a country have the same thoughts and ideas, and from the documentary we know that some Turks didn’t want to kill people.”

(Armenian student): “Why are you trying to defend the Turks!!”

(pandemonium in class)

(Me) “I don’t think anyone is saying they shouldn’t be made to pay for what they’ve done. Just that they should be seen as human beings.”

“Well, the Turkish government denies the genocide. Doesn’t that mean that Turkish people are also guilty of the same view?”

“Are you saying that you agree with everything your president, Mr. Sargsyan, says?”

“No.”

“Do you think it is important to educate the Turkish people so that they can finally acknowledge the genocide?”

“The Turks will never acknowledge their crimes. it is impossible for them to do that.”

“But what about the university students who were protesting, trying to get recognition. And the Turkish scholars that agree with Armenia’s position?”

“Obviously they are not making a big difference, since the Azeris boast about killing Armenians on our border, and Turkey considers all of our evidence as fake.”

“But what about gradual change, working toward educating Turkish people so that they can vote for someone who will acknowledge the past?

“Mr. Siebert, do you know how many people technically voted for Sargsyan? 90 per cent. Do you think it is any different in Turkey?”

“Well I hope so, ideally. In Canada we have very close elections all the time. Again – do you think it is important for Turkey to acknowledge the genocide?”

(diaspora Armenian): “Yes, of course, it is the only way that we can heal.”

“So should we bring young Turkish people here so they can learn about their great-grandfather’s crimes?”

(local Armenian): “No, the only reason they would come here is to make fun of us, and go back to Turkey and tell lies.”

“Well how about this situation. Imagine that the Turks finally acknowledged their role, and paid reparations to the Armenians. Would you accept their apology?”

(Russian Armenian) “No. Never. Plus, what good would the money and land do? Even if they give us some land, that land will be minority Armenian, and majority Kurdish or Turkish. In 10 years, they would hold a referendum, we would spend all the money Turkey gave us, and we would be back in the same place to begin with.

“Well, maybe, but don’t you think it is an important psychological moment of healing for the Turks to acknowledge genocide?”

“Mr. Siebert, how can anyone pretend that a simple apology will do anything, after they killed 1.5 million of us?

“How about the Germans? Didn’t they apologize for their crimes, and now have a good relationship with Jewish people?”

“Yes, but they were defeated in a war, and Turkey will never be defeated, even if Armenia became really powerful.”

At the end of the week, we were back to the fantasy of Armenia becoming so powerful that they were able to do “an eye for an eye” with the Turks. One or two Armenians were tuned out during the documentaries. What was the point of rehashing pain, when the solution was so simple?

So the entire week was a roller coaster of emotion, indignation, frustration, cognitive closure, illogical debates, empathy overload, empathy shortage, disbelief, sadness, glimmers of hope and utter despair. As a teacher, you imagine that the truth will shine out at some point, and students will start to acknowledge their contradictions. Even as we were having these discussions and addressing the most pressing existential questions about life, our class seemed to be running up a mountain, running out of energy and patience, falling back to instinct. Time will tell whether these students – these rather powerful students – will grow up to be leaders in Armenia who are willing to understand other human beings, even their enemies.

Some from the “Kill the Turks” crowd had just completed character analysis of Atticus Finch. They noted his bravery, courage, principle, etc. But one or two gave simple managerial analyses – Finch was good at making decisions, he was intelligent, and he was prudent in his dealing with people. The view of the Other was missing. 

Another 13 year old was reading  The Prince by Machiavelli. I praised her courage to tackle the book, but noted some of its amoral qualities (toward nature, etc) She was quick to respond – “Yes, but it is very pragmatic.” As we discussed possible final projects, it became apparent that what she really wanted to do was study Hitler, and how he dealt with the Jews. “Machiavelli says that to gain power, you have to make your powerful opponents ineffective.” All I could do was stare at amazement. We’ll see how this final project shapes up!

You could be sure of one thing – engagement was not an issue.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching genocide in Armenia

  1. Sara

    thanks for giving us a glimpse into this engaging, emotional, heart wrenching, and important experience with your class Andy, you are a good teacher. I am confident that many of your students will remember these discussions in your classroom.

  2. Pingback: Feats and Foibles 2015 | Andrew J Siebert

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